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Emotional Incest

When I was 11, three years after I first became overweight, two things happened. My parents' marriage, which had always been tense and harsh, took a turn for the worse. It degenerated into the worst depths of verbal violence. Also my father began to lose his eyesight to diabetes. At about the same time, my maternal grandmother died, and my mother was devastated, retreating into a shell-shocked depression.

Afterward, my mother became an angry, hard-bitten, unfeeling woman. My father responded with rage and constant curses and verbal abuse in an effort to subdue her to his will. Both sides expected the children (I was 11, my brother 14) to take their side, and reacted with anger to any declaration even of neutrality. They fought on the slimmest of reasons and never made up or reconciled, yet made no move towards divorce or separation, or even counselling.

During this period, my father began to lean on me for emotional support. "Honeyboy" was his pet name for me. I effectively played the role of a spouse, emotionally though of course not sexually. I supplied him with his supply of cuddles and hugs. I was the one who listened, at painful length, to all his problems with my mother. If I attempted to remonstrate or mediate, however, anger would rise quickly at me.

This relationship was largely a one-way street. If I ever cried or showed any non-joyful emotion, my father would only get upset, saying if I depressed him further I would shorten his life. The basis for this line of thought was his diabetes, which is known to be worsened by stress. I soon learned to instinctively bury all feelings. If I wanted to cry, I held back tears until I could go somewhere where no one would see or hear me.

The idea of turning to someone else for comfort became alien, weakling and not for heroes. As for expressing anger, disappointment, or frustration, not a chance. Any anger I showed would be punished by an outpouring of fury from my father, and he would cruelly pile guilt on my head, accusing me of being ungrateful for all the sacrifices he made (continuing to work at an unsympathetic employer despite his worsening vision).

His verbal abuses against me were nothing compared to his almost maniacal verbal shotgun blasts against my mother, which started over the tiniest of real or imagined provocations. Any attempt by my brother and I to stop the yelling failed, or only turned it on us.

My mother was jealous of my relationship with my father. Any personality resemblance I showed to him she resented. She disliked, even despised, me for most of my adolescent years. My obesity, my intellectualism, my fashion tastes, my total fear of girls, and all the rest either disgusted or angered her.

She was not one to fly into long, protracted tirades like my father. On the other hand, she showed no sign of gentleness or empathy like he would. He always turned to me for hugs; she would resist or push me away if I tried to hug her. Often she would go for days without smiling or saying anything polite at home (though, oddly, I saw her cheerful and happy at her workplace).

She became a workaholic and for a two-month period when I was 14, an alcoholic. She once nearly injured my brother by throwing an object at him (missing, fortunately) during a drunken rage in which she had accused my father (falsely, as she later admitted) of having had an extramarital affair.

They could not communicate directly without fighting, so they used my brother and I as messengers. One parent would tell us to tell the other something. We would do so, and the comment would often enrage the other parent, who would deliver a furious tirade, not directed at us but we were the grieved audience. And so on. It was endless, relentless.

Worse was that they strictly forbade me from telling anyone about it. It was to be a family secret, and I was not to disgrace the family by revealing. I kept friends away from our house.

I was never permitted to say or mention what I felt. One morning when I was 16 as I was eating breakfast my mother started to complain about something my father had done. Normally I restrained from saying anything, but this one time I erupted in rage at being the listening post again, and swore at her. She burst into tears and called me a faithless traitor of a son. Remembering that I was not permitted to be angry, I went to apologize but she took a knife and threatened to stab me if I came to embrace her. I went to school with that image in mind. Eventually I got her to accept an apology but she never really forgave me. It took me six years to realize she should have been apologizing to me.

That year, I was awarded first place in a public speaking contest. My mother, on the way home, suggested we play a little practical joke on my father, telling him at first I hadn't won. When he found out (after only a few minutes) that I had, he congratulated me, then proceeded to yell at me for the next three hours, calling me a shameless, cruel, vindictive, selfish, and mean-spirited brute.

The only way I could survive was either to run away from home or to believe everything my parents said about me. I chose the latter. I hated myself and it showed at school, where I was by far the brightest student around, always the top of the class, but also the most socially isolated, walking the halls with a dour, unsmiling, unapproachable appearance. I had no friends, never went to dances or social events, and never dated. I had no life outside the family.

When I was 17, a similar morning incident occurred, but my restraint held until I left the house, when it collapsed and I fell on the sidewalk on the way to school, crying hysterically in broad daylight. I spent the day wandering the streets in a daze.

I think I would have given a million dollars if my mother had said "I love you", or hugged me, or given even the slightest sign of affection during those terrible teen years. She rarely said anything positive or nurturing about me; I was socially maladjusted, greedy, lazy, selfish, and undependable in her eyes. I was a bad son, just like my father.

I would have given a second million if my father had ever stopped using guilt as a weapon to make me do his will. If I didn't make him a cup of tea when he wanted it, I was reminded of his blindness and struggles to provide for the family, and my duty as a son.

When the time came to go to university, my marks were high enough to go anywhere I liked. My father said that if I left home, he would not die within six months without the emotional support I provided, as well as the physical needs I took care of. He needed me to protect him, he said, from his wife's "savagery". The one campus near our hometown was about average, but inferior to other schools that accepted me. My father refused to provide any financial support if I left home, and told me repeatedly our income was too high for me to receive government aid. I stayed at home.

My father, nearly blind, retired two years ago; a year later my mother finally moved out. She remained hostile to me until very early this year, when she took the drug Prozac, and improved somewhat. My brother and I continued to live with my father.

And there I am now. I have accepted a job in a major city about 130 km away, after graduation. My father did not oppose my taking the job, but he has long wanted to move to the big city. He will expect me to take him in. I can refuse, indeed I want to refuse, but a powerful blow of guilt and shame will be laid upon me, and I fear I will crumble under it as I did for so long.


Oasis, June 6, 1996.